Sgt. Charles H. Saulmon, USMC, 4th Marine Division, Tank Commander: Roi Namur Islands, Saipan, Tinian, & Iwo Jima 1943-1945
His Marine buddies called him, “Saully”. He was born Charles Harmon Saulmon in 1923, in Mt. Carmel, Illinois. He was still in Mt. Carmel High School when Pearl Harbor was attacked with one year to go before graduation.
After graduation he went to work briefly for Kroger’s until a friend came into the store talking about what they were going to do about getting into the military. They decided to join the Marines realizing that they were going to be drafted anyway. Neither of them really wanted to go into the army. They wanted to be paratroopers (Para-marines). As they lined up for entry into the Marines, his friend was chosen for the Para-Marines but Saully was picked to go to tank school.
He traveled by troop train to the USMC training facility called “Jack’s Farm,” in California. He said that boot camp wasn’t so hard because he knew what to expect having grown up on a farm. Saully quickly advanced in rank learning all of the jobs on a medium tank. He made sergeant and became a tank commander.
Saully and his crew trained on and operated the M4 Sherman tank employed by the US Army and Marine Corps in World War II. The Sherman is a medium tank with a 75mm gun manned by a crew of five. It served the USMC in all of the island invasions of the Pacific Theater.
Rio-Namur Islands of the Kwajalein Atoll, 1 Feb 1944
According to 4th Marine Division history the unit was activated 14 Aug 1943 and trained at Jack’s Farm. In Jan 1944 they sailed from San Diego for the Marshall Islands, Rio-Namur in the Kwajalein Atoll. Both islands were secure after a day of fighting. Of the 3,500 Japanese defenders, there were only 51 survivors. On the American side, the USMC and Army 7th Division lost 372 killed and 1,592 were wounded.
The Marine tanks were transported on Navy ships called LSTs. LST or Landing Ship Tank was designed to carry significant quantities of vehicles (tanks), cargo, and troops directly onto an unimproved shore during amphibious assaults. Saully recalls some details about how the LST carrying his tank came right ashore and sunk itself at the beach so it could off load the tanks in his squad.
The amphibious assault happened in the early hours on the first day and they quickly advanced to their objective. Both islands were secure after a day of fighting. What he remembered about the Kwajalein operation was a tank crew-member was killed by a sniper when he stuck his head out of the tank. It was a sobering reminder that they were in a very vulnerable position.
Both islands were secure after a day of fighting. Of the 3,500 Japanese defenders, there were only 51 survivors. On the American side, the USMC and Army 7th Division lost 372 killed and 1,592 were wounded. After Kwajalein, the 4th Marine Division sailed to the island of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands to wait for the next engagement.
Siapan and Tinian
Question: What was the next island for the 4th Marine Division? “Siapan and I don’t remember a lot about Siapan. I do remember being positioned on a hilltop watching a long line of people walking to our lines. These were mostly Koreans whom the Japanese had enslaved to work the cane fields on Siapan. There were some Japanese in the lines with them.”
“I remember watching small groups move to the side of the line and I saw small puffs of smoke. The Japanese blew themselves up with hand grenades rather than surrender. They would also attempt to blow our tanks up with mines strapped to their bodies, running at our tanks and blowing themselves up. At the end of the day we would have to scrape the human flesh off the tank to keep it from smelling so bad.”
“There was one incident on Siapan that I remember. It got to a point, a lull in the battle, where we could take a bath. We had to bathe in the ocean as there was no fresh water. Someone got a bar of saltwater soap and we went down to this coral outcropping with these small pools of water. Everyone stripped down. We piled our weapons together and we got in the water.
I noticed that I was the last one so I got out and got my clothes on. I decided to climb up on top of the coral but when I got to the top I was met by five a Japanese officer and four enlisted soldiers. I realized later they could have killed us at anytime and I don’t know why they didn’t just open up on us.”
“One of them threw a hand grenade at me and it ended up on the ground and exploded. I opened up on them with my pistol causing the other Marines to come back. They started shooting too and we killed the four enlisted soldiers. I shot the officer with my .45 but he got away. Later we were questioned by Intelligence people and they wanted to know why we didn’t take any prisoners. I told them if they wanted a prisoner to talk to, go out there and get one your own.”
According to 4th Marine Division history, the unit landed on Siapan on 15 June 1944. This was no cake walk. 4th Division Marines suffered 5,981 casualties killed, wounded and missing. This was almost 28% of the Division’s strength. The island was secured after 25 days of combat. The Japanese lost 23,811 dead and 1,810 prisoners of war. Saully said that there were over a thousand dead Japanese in one location. The stench was penetrating. The flies were so thick that if you had to relieve yourself you did it quickly.
The next island for the 4th Marine Division was Tinian which was assaulted on 24 July 1944. This battle lasted 9 days and the 4th Marines lost 290 killed, 1,515 wounded and 24 missing in action. The Japanese lost nearly 9,000 dead and 250 prisoners were taken. The Division was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its work on Siapan and Tinian.
Tinian would become a strategic airfield for the US Army Air Corps in its bombing of Japan. B-29s from Tinian began a ruthless bombing campaign of Japanese cities culminating in the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which ended the War.
It was clear that Iwo Jima had a significant impact had on the life of Charles Saully. He could recall details from Iwo that in previous battles were just blurs.
The first wave of Marines landed there on 19 Feb 45 around 0900. He didn’t know if he was in the first wave or not. The Marine higher ups did not tell him or his company much about Iwo. It was just another island to take. His LST was hit with artillery that blew a hole in the side but it still landed and his tanks were able to go ashore.
His Gunnery Sergeant bet him $5 that he would get to shore before Charles. Charles won that bet. Their objective was to take the airstrip and his tank was halfway to the airstrip when it hit a magnetic mine. The mine blew the track off the tank and disabled it. The explosion gave Charles and his crew a big headache, not to mention they would have to try and repair the track under enemy fire. A photographer from Springfield, IL came by their disabled tank and took the photo you see on the cover of the book “Tank Battles of the Pacific”. The men on the tank are his crew: Evans, Reeves and Haddox. See the 10th photo of the gallery.
Question: “How did you get your tank fixed and back in the battle?” “That became an interesting story. Before we would leave on a battle we would buy a case of Del Monte peaches and we would take the peaches and stuff them into spaces inside the tank.”
“When the track got blown off we all got out and started working to get it back on the wheels and re-pinned. The Japs would hit us with mortar rounds and we would dive back in the tank. We’d get out and they would start shelling us again and we jumped back in the tank. I jumped in the driver’s seat because it didn’t matter where you sat at this point. Evans said, “Saully, I got hit!” Saully lifted Evans’ shirt and it was peach juice running down his backside.”
The Platoon Sergeant was killed there when a mortar round landed in the hole where he had taken cover. Saully said, “The photographer, Joe Rosenthal, who took the photo of the Marines raising the flag on Mt. Suribachi, came by our position and needed a helmet. He had come ashore with no helmet. Rosenthal got the dead sergeant’s helmet from the pile and wore it that day. He later took the photo of the Marines on top of Mt. Suribachi raising the Stars and Stripes.”
Saully said that there were so many dead Marines and it was so hot that they had to bury them quickly. A bulldozer dug a trench and the bodies were buried in a mass grave. They would be recovered later after the island was secure.
Saully said that they were sent ahead to help another tank that had taken a hit and was disabled. They backed up to it and opened both lower hatches and the crew got out and climbed into their tank.
Later they went back for that tank and in the process found a cave. His platoon commander had asked that if he got a chance that he would like a good clean Japanese rifle and asked Saully to get him one.
At the cave Saully was bent over looking down when his .45 Colt slipped out of his shoulder holster and fell down into the cave. He climbed down about ten feet using the Japanese ladder. When he reached bottom he found a stash of Japanese rifles covered with Cosmoline. The platoon commander got his good clean Japanese rifle!
Saully then saw a Japanese soldier with mines attached to his body pretending to be dead. The enemy soldier moved and Saully thought that the guy was going to blow him up so he shot him. The soldier was a non-commissioned officer and had a sword on him. Saully got the sword and scabbard and flag as a souvenir.
Saully also remembers looking through his binoculars one day and noticing a mirror poking up from the ground. They fired a 75mm round into the hold and the mirror never came back up.
Iwo Jima lasted 29 days and it was the costliest battle of the Pacific. 9,098 Marines of the 4th Division were killed in action, half of the division’s strength. The three Marine divisions; 3rd, 4th, and 5th killed an estimated 22,000 Japanese and took 44 prisoners.
The 4th Marine Division returned to Maui to prepare for the invasion of Japan. However, Iwo Jima would be the last battle of World War 2 for the 4th Marine Division. Japan surrendered after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed from Tinian.
After the War, Saully returned home to Mt. Carmel, Illinois and went to work for Shell Oil. He married and he and his wife Doris, who just recently passed away, had three children. Saully retired from Shell Oil in 1985 and lives in Kingwood, Texas close to his daughter, Ginger.
Question: “Charles what do you owe your coming through four amphibious landings, the last one being Iwo Jima? How did you come out of those operations alive and not injured?”
“Wayne, it is by the grace of God that I am here today. I carried a small New Testament in my pocket and I read it and believed it. I’m just glad God wasn’t through with me yet.”
Charles Saully is an active senior citizen today; attends church and Bible study regularly and is a member of the Kingwood Camera Club. Charles takes some great photos himself.